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Harbaugh Watch, Day Four: The Latest Information

by | Jan 5, 2023 | Uncategorized | 1 comment

Note: Many readers on social media ask journalists to name their sources. If journalists did so – especially after promising confidentiality – they would no longer have sources, on or off the record. When I write for publications and book publishers, I show my editors who the unnamed sources are, and the editors can contact them privately if they have questions. Since I have no editor for my blog, you can choose to trust me and my sources or not, but my track record is clean.

Others often conclude journalists are simply out for “clicks.” Many certainly are, but I am not paid for clicks, Twitter followers, media attention, etc. I get paid only for my books and speeches, and I have said publicly I am no longer writing books on football. 

Having spoken to more sources the past few days, it’s still not clear what Harbaugh will do, but we know more than we did a week ago. 

First, a brief background: 

-When Michigan’s interim AD Jim Hackett signed Harbaugh in late 2014, he did so despite the predictions of all but a few experts, including just about every reporter who covers the NFL. 

-From 2015 up to the 2020 season, the rumors of Harbaugh jumping back to the NFL were constant, but from everything I know, Harbaugh started none of them, and ignored them all. 

-After the 2-4 Covid-shortened 2020 season, the rumors shifted from “Harbaugh to the NFL” to whether AD Warde Manuel would keep Harbaugh or not.  During that unhappy time, fans painted the rock, which the Harbaughs often passed with their kids in the car, with “FIRE HARBAUGH.” Twitter, of course, featured that message and many more, which these days is part of the job. (Some of the same fans who were calling for Harbaugh’s head now seem equally furious that he might be considering leaving.) I’ve never heard Harbaugh say anything about that time, but it couldn’t have been easy.  

-After Michigan’s triumphant 2021 season, Harbaugh openly told his recruits, players, staffers, and the media that he was going to explore his NFL prospects. He did so, flying to Minnesota for an interview, and would have taken the job if offered. When he wasn’t, he returned to Michigan and told Mitch Albom: “I called Warde and I asked him if he wanted me to be the head coach. And he said, ‘Yes, 100 percent.’ And I said, ‘OK then. That’s what I want to do.’ And I told him, ‘Warde, this will not be a reoccurring theme every year. This was a one-time thing.”

-After another historically successful regular season in 2022 – capping arguably the two best consecutive seasons for Michigan since 1947-48 — he told ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren on December 4, “I think no man knows the future. But I think that people that … are pleased with the job that we’ve done here at Michigan, they’re going to be very happy to learn that we will be back enthusiastically coaching the Wolverines in 2023. And for those people that don’t approve of the job we’ve done or would rather see somebody else coaching here, I think they’ll be most likely disappointed to learn we’ll be back coaching the Wolverines in 2023. [But] It’s really biblical, no man knows the future. I can’t make vows of what’s going to happen or what’s not going to happen.”

In contrast to his very public flirtation with the NFL a year ago, this time has been different. Harbaugh has not told anyone publicly that he is seeking or even listening to NFL offers, and he’s not visited any NFL offices. Also, this time it’s the NFL teams who are courting him, not the other way around. I also hear he’s letting his brother John’s agent, Bryan Harlan, handle the calls. (Jim Harbaugh’s contract stipulates that if he talks with NFL teams, he has to inform Manuel.) 

So, unlike Harbaugh’s first six years at U-M, the latest round of NFL rumors cannot be immediately dismissed as click-bait. Colin Cowherd has reported Denver offered Harbaugh a $20 million a year contract, which would make him the highest paid coach in the league, and Indianapolis and Carolina are both said to be talking to Harbaugh’s agent. Harbaugh has said almost nothing during this time, but he rarely does, and is currently up north with his son, but he has also not squashed the NFL rumors with a simple tweet, either. 

My NFL sources, including  reporters and coaches, are convinced Harbaugh will return to the NFL – but they have always thought that, going back to 2014. But this time even some serious sources at U-M think he will, too, which got my attention. 

As I tweeted before, if Harbaugh actually does go to the NFL, it won’t be because of NIL, money, or control. Since Manuel sent out a public email on December 23 describing the NIL efforts, the NIL groups have raised another $7-8 million that will go to U-M football players. While few are completely immune to money, I’ve never seen Harbaugh make a decision based primarily on money, including his surprising move to return to Ann Arbor in 2015, when he declined NFL salaries that would have paid him twice as much, or more. Further, Manuel is prepared to renegotiate Harbaugh’s contract to make him one of the top-five paid coaches in college football. New U-M President Santa Ono has publicly stated his full-throated support for athletics in general – which he demonstrated as president of the University of Cincinnati and the University of British Columbia — and his desire to retain Harbaugh in particular. 

Sources have told me Harbaugh is fed up with the NCAA, and all the hassles that go with coaching college football vs. the NFL – something just about every coach would understand. The NCAA is famous for punishing misdemeanors while ignoring felonies. As Jerry Tarkanian famously said, “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky that they’re going to give Cleveland State another year of probation.”

Another unknown factor: Harbaugh and/or his staff will likely receive some form of reprimand from the NCAA, for what I’ve heard is a relatively minor recruiting infraction from two years ago. What exactly the infraction is, what the NCAA’s response might be – with the NCAA, it is impossible to predict — and how Harbaugh and Manuel will react to the NCAA’s conclusions aren’t yet known. U-M insiders believe the NCAA will be announcing what the infraction is and what the penalty will be, if any, within the next few weeks.

Likewise, since the NFL regular season ends Sunday, and the college football season ends Monday, the game of musical chairs should conclude soon, too. If Harbaugh does leave, there will be no lack of highly qualified candidates for the position, thanks partly to Harbaugh returning the program to the top echelon after inheriting a 5-7 team in 2014. The list would head coaches at top twenty college programs, NFL head coaches, and promising internal candidates, too. 

But the idea that “Harbaugh to the NFL” is a done deal is a bet I’ve bypassed in 2014, almost every year thereafter, and again last January. The rumors in 2023 cannot be summarily dismissed, but until the above questions are answered, we’re back to where we started: Nobody knows anything. 

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1 Comment

  1. Chris

    Thanks for the update John. I’d bet Jim will leave – the window will not be open much longer for a 60 year old coach to return to the NFL, and it’s unlikely U of M will routinely be one game away from the national championship (wish it were, but that’s not been a given for the past 75 years or so). If he returns to the NFL and succeeds, he’ll be breaking another precedent – only Dick Vermeil comes to mind for a coach that’s been out of the league for that long and returned at that age to great acclaim.

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